The Art of Finding Yourself: How self-taught computer scientist Asta Li is bringing self-driving cars to market

 Asta Li ● Software Engineer ● Aurora Innovation

Asta Li ● Software Engineer ● Aurora Innovation

Like most children, Asta Li grew up with ambitious and ever-changing career goals. One day, she would envision herself as an artist, or perhaps a designer. Another day, it seemed as though architecture was the perfect path to pursue her interest in art. Yet as a first-generation American, she wanted to pursue something that would guarantee financial security.

Asta first began coding at the age of 13, when she took a C++ class at a local community college. She settled upon this course while looking to expand on her skillset, as her high school did not offer any computer science courses. Despite having this newfound interest and doing well, she never considered being a software engineer. Seeing some of the boys her age code and play computer games somehow convinced her that competing with them was useless.

So Asta chose a path that she felt best combined her innate artistic ability and passion for STEM: aircraft design. Asta began working toward her goals at the young age of 15, when she started studying in the mechanical and aerospace department at Cornell University. (She intentionally chooses not to discuss her age to avoid assumptions about her experience and prefers to let her work speak for itself.) At Cornell, she joined a UAV team called CUAir, which built drones every year for AUVSI, an annual international drone competition held at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. During her second year on the team, Asta designed the airframe and manufactured the competitive drone. She recalls this as the “start to [her] path to engineering”.

Although she thought she wanted to study computer science during sophomore year, Asta was accepted into a program to study abroad at Cambridge University for her junior year. Since she had already completed most of her mechanical engineering credits by this time and could not do much to change her major, Asta chose to teach herself computer science.

She took online courses, such as MIT lectures and Coursera classes, and completed assignments virtually. Asta learned Python, practiced coding problems, read textbooks and put herself on a rigorous schedule to teach herself what most students achieve over the course of four years.

“Basically anything you can learn in college, especially for computer science, is available for free on the internet,” she says. “Although I didn’t have much formal training, I was still able to get internships that were really valuable.”

Asta was able to take some computer science classes at Cambridge University, and she finished her degree in mechanical engineering the following year. While pursuing a masters degree in computer science at Cornell University, she worked at Uber as an intern and co-op student. With her interest in unmanned aerial vehicles and experience with computer vision from a research project and courses, Asta was able to work on self-driving cars and meet people who taught her “even more than she learned in school”.

“I do subscribe heavily to the belief that you create your passions. No one is born loving computer science. People develop these passions as they get really good at them,” she says. “That’s how I’ve tried to drive my career! I think the problem of transportation and safety has an impact on people’s lives everyday.”

In 2017, Asta began working at Aurora, a Bay Area-based startup working to bring self-driving vehicles to the market. Although this was originally a “scrappy startup in a lumberyard” with “no indoor plumbing” and “band practice next door”, Asta says she has learned much from choosing to work at Aurora.

As the youngest person and first female to be hired as a full-time engineer, she admits to being intimidated by being surrounded by people with more experience. She soon realized that she had picked up not only technological skills but also soft skills, like working effectively and being a good teammate. Asta says her biggest obstacle while trying to find her way to computer science and software engineering was self-doubt.

“I think this voice in the back of my head came from a lot of different things, like this idea that guys are supposed to be the ones that are good at computers,” she says. “The cultural effects are still present with the fact that very few computer science programs have an even gender distribution… and this is commonplace across the board.”

Asta learned over time that prioritizing sleep and goal-setting were most effective for success. What stuck with her most was the driven nature of her parents. She says that the words she grew up hearing from her mother were enough to keep her competitive and determined.

“My parents have a huge influence. My mom is what I would call a really powerful woman,” Asta says. “She grew up in a poor family… and taught me that you don’t have to be born with any incredible skill to be successful… All that matters is that you work hard.”

She goes on to share that “way more women could be computer scientists or software engineers but don’t believe in themselves, don’t believe they can be, don’t believe they should be and aren’t confident enough during interviews because of that self-doubt,” Asta says. “I’d love to change that.”

Transforming Latin American Talent: How Laboratoria Alumna, Shazil Tovar, Is Closing the Technology Gender Gap

 Shazil Tovar ● Front-End Developer ● Accenture

Shazil Tovar ● Front-End Developer ● Accenture

In Mexico, the technology scene is booming, with engineering and development jobs on the rise.  However, female representation in the Latin America tech scene still has some progress to make. Four years ago, Laboratoria wanted to fix that, by recruiting Latina women to help bridge the divide.

Shazil Tovar of Mexico City was one of the applicants accepted into Laboratoria’s 4th cohort. From Ciudad de Mexico (CDMX) to San Paulo, Brazil, Shazil rose to the top of a competitive applicant pool across Latin America. As a student, Shazil always thought about being a developer, however, it was not clear how she could pursue that dream.  Despite studying Systems Engineering and creating web pages for fun, she never thought she could use her coding skills for a career. Even in Latin America, getting a formal education or technical training is not enough, as most Latina Women have less than a 20% chance to transition to a formal job. After getting married and starting a family, her aspirations of having a career in tech began to fade.

Then...something happened. She discovered a new path.

Now she’s a Software Developer for Accenture in Mexico City, and has been for the last year and a half. When she first started in early 2017, she was the Angular team, working primarily on frameworks. She was able to transition to the Testing team, where she’s currently testing automation for Android devices, in addition to developing robots for services performance tests. Beyond developing strong technical skills, the mentorship and support from the Laboratoria community help her balance her new career and her family.

During Laboratoria’s six-month bootcamp, Shazil was able to learn alongside her peers that shared her dreams of a better career opportunity.  Over a 1000 hours were committed to coding, where they learned about responsive apps, Bootstrap frameworks, and JQuery elements.

“They literally sculpted a new woman, the best version of me. Every key from the keyboard I pushed within these walls, was worthy. I didn’t realize entirely what I was doing, not until I saw it presented within a real software product solution for a very important bank in the world, then I realized what I was capable of doing and I had a mixture of emotions and gratitude that pushed away most of my fears and insecurities.”

As a Laboratoria Alum, Shazil is part of the stronghold of technically trained and equipped women who are recognized on a global scale, including allies from Google and Facebook.

“Laboratoria changed the way I see women in technology... I didn’t even realize that there were so few women working at this sector [and] women talent was needed… This [movement] is just starting. ”

With over 850 alumni as of April 2018, Laboratoria’s mission is to help fill the 450,000 available jobs with as many women as possible. The end-goal is empowering women, providing the technical and personal support they need, and allowing them to become change agents for the technology industry as a whole.

Expressing Creativity Through Code: Howard Student Kymberlee Hill Uses Computer Science to Pursue her Passions

 Kymberlee Hill ● Student & CEO ● Curl IQ

Kymberlee Hill ● Student & CEO ● Curl IQ

Like father, like daughter, Los Angeles native Kymberlee Hill fell in love with music watching her dad work as a music producer. When the industry shifted to incorporate more technology, her dad shifted right along with it, creating websites and graphics for artists in addition to his producing. Fascinated by her father’s work, Kym started teaching herself how to use digital design tools like Photoshop and InDesign.

“Music, creativity, and entrepreneurship were taught to me at a very young age,” Kym said. “My dad and I had our own radio show and car wash.”

Kym decided to pursue a major in Computer Science. “I recognized that technology was a tool and a way I could better express my creativity. I like being outside of the box and code is a way to do that,” said Kym.

After attending a predominantly white high school, Kym traveled to the East Coast to attend Howard University, a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) in Washington, D.C. Affectionately called the “The Mecca”, Howard attracts students from different backgrounds who mainly share the common experience of being Black.

“Google taught some of my classes freshman year, which is part of the reason why I went to Howard,” Kym said, referring to the Googler-in-Residence Program where Google engineers teach as faculty at HBCUs. “That was the first time I saw a black woman teaching CS.”

For many Black women, their hair is a source of inspiration, admiration and frustration. As a naturalista, Kym knows this all too well. Around campus, she would hear women say, “I would’ve never gone natural had I not come to Howard,” which became a topic of much discussion amongst her and her friends who often spent a lot of money buying hair products.  

Born out of a conversation in 2016, Kym and her friend turned their conversation from a problem to a solution. They thought “What if you could just take a picture of your hair and know what products would work well?”

Kym brought this question to her CS advisor and research professor, who encouraged her to learn more about what that type of technology would look like. Kym wrote a grant proposal to research how to analyze a photo to determine hair pattern and matching products. She used this idea for her senior project, incorporating design thinking into the process.

Kym’s hypothesis was that if women knew their hair type, they would have an easier time finding products. She conducted interviews, captured and analyzed pictures of women with natural hair, and created an algorithm and prototype. “Initially, I did not think of the app as a business, I just wanted to do the research,” she said.

After a mentor told her about a startup accelerator, she decided to apply and was accepted. With the help of three friends, Kym programmed and incorporated Curl IQ, “an image analysis app that generates personalized hair care solutions for women with textured hair.” The app uses big data and computer vision technology to identify the hair type and offer product recommendations and will launch at the end of 2018.

“This is for the culture,” said Kym. “Some people won’t understand, but I know Black women will understand.”

Working as a software engineer at companies like Twitter, Intel and Spotify prepared Kym to finish her last semester at Howard and continue to run Curl IQ. At these companies, she gained experience in front-end, back-end, and full-stack development working on internal tools and platform features. One fun fact she shared is that because she worked at Twitter, she cannot be verified with a check. CEO Jack Dorsey is the only verified Twitter employee.

While Kym has faced challenges with bringing her dream of Curl IQ to reality, she says she has leaned in on her faith to keep her grounded. “It’s about confidence, knowing and believing that you are capable,” she said. “My biggest challenge is making sure I am not blocking my blessings.”

As an entrepreneur in tech, she knows there will be long days and moments where she may feel discouraged, but she is determined not to give up.

Kym’s advice for women and other budding entrepreneurs: “Believe in yourself. Believe in the work. Build a strong foundation.”